At the end of February we left off with one foot in the door of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the oldest surviving Hatha Yoga manuals. Hatha Yoga emerged sometime in the 9th or 10th centuries CE, strongly influenced by both Hindu Tantra and Indian alchemy. The Pradipika was written four or five hundred years later, though remnants of these ancient disciplines are still evident in this text and others like it. The Gheranda Samhita for example, a companion text that's a few hundred years younger, calls Hatha Yoga the "Yoga of the Pot" (ghata yoga), "pot" here referring to the human body (or more precisely the torso) which is compared to an alchemical vessel.
Unlike the famous eight-limb practice of Patanjali's Classical Yoga, which begins with 10 behavioral injunctions-such as don't tell lies, don't commit acts of violence, and be content-Hatha Yoga dives right into asana. Nowadays there are literally hundreds of these exercises (BKS Iyengar's Light on Yoga illustrates 200, and I have an encyclopedia from an Indian institute that lists 900), but most of these were added to the Yoga repertoire less than a hundred years ago (that's a story for another time). Hatha tradition holds there are 840,000 asanas, though only 84 of these are suitable for humans (different schools have different lists of 84). Of these, Svatmarama briefly describes just 15, the four most "essential" of which-Siddha, Padma, Simha and Bhadra- are all sitting poses.
Have you ever wondered why we do asanas at all? You may be vague on why, but the old yogins had very specific reasons. They strongly believed asanas have a salutary effect on the physical body, and would help ward off disease-and even death!-stoke the "fire in the belly" to improve digestion and elimination, and to strengthen (or as they said, "bake") the body in preparation for pranayama and meditation. But that's not all. As you may know, the old yogins believed that our physical body is like the tip of an iceberg, supported by a vast hidden subtle body that's invisible to the human eye but readily apparent to the "eye of wisdom" (jnana cakshus), better known as the "third eye." This body is criss-crossed by a network of thousands of energy channels (nadi) that transport vital energy (prana) to every nook and cranny. In the average person these channels gradually "silt up," due to poor posture, ill health, and stress, preventing prana from flowing freely. Asanas, so the yogins say, will dredge out these blocked channels, so the prana can be used in the services of Yoga. We'll come back to these teachings later.
But by now you're dying (figuratively I hope, in a good way) to try an asana practice based on the Pradipika. With only 15 asanas, this will be short session (I'll soon be posting other practice sessions drawn from a variety of sources on my new website www.homagetothesource.com. I invite you to try them out). Here then is your Practice with Svatmarama. The more advanced poses are marked *, which beginners should modify or skip entirely. All the poses but two (Svatmarama's versions of KURMASANA and VIRASANA) are described in Light on Yoga.
KURMASANA* (in Svatmarama's version, sit in VIRASANA with feet everted, ie., feet turned out, inner feet on floor; beginners sit on heels) > SIMHASANA > BHADRASANA (today called baddha konasana) > MAYURASANA* > GOMUKHASANA > PASHCHIMATANASANA > DHANURASANA (today called akarna dhanurasana) > MATSYENDRASANA (today called ardha matsyendrasana I) > VIRASANA* > (in Svatmarama's version, one leg is in Half Hero, the other in Half Lotus) > PADMASANA* (Svatmarama actually describes three slightly different versions, the one most commonly performed is today called baddha padmasana) > KUKKUTASANA* > UTTANA KURMASANA* (today called garbha pindasana) > MATSYENDRASANA > SIDDHASANA > SHAVASANA.
Wasn't that fun? We'll come back to this again next month.